Development of the Karkheh’s water resources has contributed in important ways to Iran’s food security and underpinned the livelihoods of both basin farmers and urban consumers. However, the linkages between poverty and agricultural water use in the basin are now weak at best. Furthermore, there is now little if any additional water to develop. As a result, future water policy will need to increasingly focus on the management and allocation of existing resources rather than the development of new sources of supply. This new management focus should aim primarily at increasing water productivity to meet existing national priorities. In the short to medium term, this means focusing on improvements in physical water productivity, primarily the quantity of wheat output per unit of water input so as to improve the use of scarce water resources for national food security priorities. In irrigated areas, this may be achieved, for example, through improved use of irrigation, an option which would also help to ensure groundwater sustainability.
In the longer term, and if the international environment changes, the focus may be shifted towards increases in economic water productivity by moving water away from lower productivity grain production and towards higher-value activities including hydropower generation and urban uses. Poverty is still an issue in the Karkheh and targeted water interventions may assist in poverty reduction. However, the water scarcity conditions of Iran, the country’s other substantial assets, and evidence of the drivers of past poverty trends suggest that from a national policy standpoint, the use of non-agricultural water measures are likely to be the most effective solution to remaining rural poverty problems in the Karkheh basin. That said, scenario analysis shows that a combination of the right policies could minimize the tradeoffs between food self-sufficiency, sustainable water use and farmers’ income.